Interview with Phil Gross

Phil Gross in his books on Macromedia Director 8 and 8.5 untangles both programs in an easy to understand and comprehensive manner. I was fortunate to discover Phil Gross's book on Macromedia 8 shortly after I had started to learn Director 8.5. At that time, there were not any third party books available on Director 8.5. The book on Macromedia Director 8 is entitled Director 8 and Lingo Authorized and is published by Macromedia Press and Peachpit press. His second book in conjunction with is brother, Mike, is entitled Macromedia Director 8.5 and Shockwave Studio for 3D and is also published by Macromedia Press and Peachpit Press. When I first looked at this book, I was thrilled to see that the book was not a rehash of his former book with only a section devoted to the 3D aspect of Director 8.5. At the end of this column, will be a review of the book.

After corresponding with Phil a number of times, I was very impressed with him and asked him if he would participate in an interview via e-mail. He said he would, and I sent him some questions. He, actually, did more than just answer the questions and I was thrilled with some of his comments and ideas. What I am presenting is the whole interview.

Phil is a programmer and consultant who has his own company called MEL. He has a math degree from UCSD and has worked in the programming field since the IBM 80x86 computers.

Interview with Phil Gross

"Q1 - What first got you interested in working with Macromedia Director? 

A1 - Back in about 1991 we got a proposal to develop a laserdisc based project for teaching spoken Japanese. There was a lot of interest at the time in creating new software packages that would ease the programming burden of creating that type of training. You know, handle a lot of the underlying operations so you could focus on the content. There were probably as many authoring tools out there as there were projects to use them on. Because of the need to control the laserdisc through the software, we needed something a little higher-end than most of the products available. Director wasn't really a training authoring tool, but it fit our needs and allowed for easy interfacing with handlers written in C. Plus it looked like Director would be around for a while and that Lingo would continue to be extended.

Q2 - What made you interested in writing books about Macromedia Director? 

A2 - That was just one of those coincidences. Someone who I knew also knew someone who was the Executive Editor for Peachpit Press. They figured out that I both knew Director and that I'd written a number of books in the past on other computer topics. Not to belittle either writers or programmers, but the ability to write technical books is not that common a skill. You only need to think about some of the books you've tried to read to know that it's easy to get it wrong. The books that typically have come with software are classic examples, although to be fair, the companies probably aren't allocating enough time or resources to do the job right.

 Q3 - How do you go about writing a book that will be released so soon after the program? 

A3 - Well, first of all I have to say that it is something I wouldn't wish on anybody. The books I'd written before were for stable versions of programming languages (such as 80X86 assembly language programming) or operating systems (UNIX and OS/2). You knew the material, and you only had to be sure to get the information correct and in a logical order. Even the other Director books were mainly updating against a relatively stable product. But with Director 8.5, and the introduction of Shockwave 3D, everything was brand new.

One thing people generally don't realize is that writing a technical book consists as much in designing the book as in actually doing the writing. To tell the truth, designing is probably more important than writing. You can get around some bad language, but if you don't teach A and B before the reader gets to C, the reader will be lost and you'll probably never get them learning again. So the main trick is to flowchart your material, just like you would do for writing a complicated computer program. You figure out what the major topics that need to be considered are, determine the subtopics that prepare for those major topics, and then determine the best order. After that the book will pretty much write itself. We used to have sometimes four or five people working for two weeks to flowchart a book, then one person would go off and write it.

I seem to have gotten off topic a bit, you were asking about getting a book done in tandem with the software coming out. Mostly that comes down to working 16 hours a day for a few months. Plus I had a lot more time to work on the material than you might think. Once Macromedia had a version of Director up and running they started the Beta program. About 25 developers get access to the software and all the current documentation, which is not much. Plus some access to the Director engineers through the beta listserve. That translates to 25 people helping each other learn the new material. For Director 8.5, that was about 4 months from the start of the beta to the release of the software. So I had a good month of working with the software before I even started thinking about writing.

What really makes it difficult is that about half way through the project the beta testers will decide that there is a much better way to handle some major elements. Macromedia gets convinced and they rewrite Director, then I get to rewrite about half of what I've got done. That happened at least twice, maybe more times.

What makes it easier is that I partner with my brother and that we have a great working relationship. For one thing, he is the best debugger I have ever met. I can give him what is essentially a first draft and he will rework it so that it makes sense, and also guarantee that if the reader follows directions, then their project will run as promised.

What also makes it easier is knowing that after 3 months of 16 hour days I'm going to be done, and I'm going to head down to Baja California, pitch a tent on a deserted beach, and not even look at a computer for two months.

Q4 - When you initially start a book, what type of reference material do you use?

A4 - As I mentioned, I have access to the Director engineers a bit, although they are incredibly busy themselves. So I try to hold that as a last resort. The other beta testers are a wonderful resource and some very talented Director programmers. If I have some topic that doesn't seem to work like the engineers are saying, I can pose the question to the Beta list and in half a day some four or five people will have tested it half to death and worked up the right answer.

On top of that I'm a great believer in buying books. I own every book in print about Director, and update them whenever a new version comes out. I don't typically read them, but they are there for reference. I can't imagine working with a software package and not doing that, even if you aren't writing about it and just using it. That may seem like a lot of money for books, but if a book answers just one question when you need it, it has paid for itself. I've always worked as a consultant, so for me the time I save is time I can bill and it always pays off. 

Q5 - What part of your background do you feel contributed the most when you wrote the three books on Director? 

A5 - The time I spent working with Courseware, a company that was one of the early developers of computer based training. They brought me in as a programmer and a subject matter expert for UNIX, but in the process I learned how to design training. There were a number of people there who were instrumental in developing instructional design. Now you can go to school and get a degree in Instructional Design, but at the time it was pretty much hit or miss. That was a great job - you spend half the time programming and the other half writing. I never got bored.

Q6 - Any last suggestions about writing computer books?

A6 - Sure. Besides making sure that you have covered all the material, and in the right order, there are a couple of points that will make the difference between an OK book and a great book. First, the reader should never have cause to doubt the veracity of anything in the book. That may seem obvious - a factual error in a book is as bad as a bug in writing software. But it is worse than that really. Once the reader comes across an error, he or she has to start spending time questioning everything else that is said. That is intellectual effort that is much better spent on just learning the material. Second, spend the time rewriting your sentences so that there is never any ambiguity. The classic joke is the phrase "Throw Momma from the train a kiss". The reader should never have to spend time trying to resolve a sentence, or figuring out what some preposition is referring to. Usually that means having the time to return to your work a week or more after you wrote it, and then seeing if you still understand your own references.

Q7 - Any final words about Director 8.5 and 3D?

A7 - Director 8.5 and Shockwave are a good start on providing real-time 3D over the Web. I think that it is still in its infancy, though, and that is probably why Macromedia called this huge release 8.5 instead of 9.0. When they do come out with a full version release, we can expect it to be a much more robust product. Maybe they will even more closely integrate the Havok physics into Director. Right now you can add the Havok Xtra and get access to gravity, wind, springs and improved collision detection. But fully including Havok might give automatic deformation from collisions, cloth effects, water effects, and other high level 3D effects.

A lot of this is dependent upon how fast 3D graphics cards are improved and being updated, so that the typical computer will be able to handle all this 3D in real-time. We can expect more 3D handling to be built into future mother boards and operating systems. And at some point you can expect such common elements as desktops, icons and menus to be 3D, and web sites will routinely include 3D. Anyone who wants to be a part of this would be well advised to give Director 8.5 a try, and be ready to take advantage of each future improvement."

I hope everybody is as impressed as I was with Phil's in-depth answers to my simple questions. I feel very fortunate to be able to present this interview.

©Paula Sanders 2002
from my Renderosity column February 4, 2002